AFTER two non-Final Four seasons and a blowout loss to Lyceum of the Philippines University in last year's semifinals, Letran made it back to the Finals for another date with bitter rival San Beda.
The Knights showed tremendous composure down the stretch to eliminate the Pirates, 92-88, in a thrilling ending to the NCAA men's basketball step-ladder phase yesterday at the Cuneta Astrodome.
Larry Muyang scored the game's biggest basket, a lay-up in the last 18.1 seconds that propelled Letran back to the league's biggest stage.
Surviving two do-or-die matches, the Knights will now face a well-rested Red Lions in the best-of-three series starting at 4 p.m. at the Mall of Asia Arena.
For the fifth time since 2007, San Beda and Letran will meet in the championship round. The Lions won their first four Finals meetings before the Knights won it in improbable fashion in 2015.
"Kapag San Beda-Letran, ibang usapan na iyan," said skipper Jerrick Balanza, who was a rookie when his team emerged triumphant four years ago under coach Aldin Ayo. "Expect na maganda ang laban, Game 1 pa lang."
The Lions, who are unbeaten in 18 matches this season, should be wary of the Knights, who displayed toughness that they need if the Muralla-based dribblers wanted to pull off.
Even when LPU was able to trim down a 77-88 deficit to within three, Letran did not panic, as Fran Yu stabilized his troops.
Yu was the difference-maker for the Knights with 20 points, six assists and five rebounds.
Larry Muyang added 19 points and nine boards, Bonbon Batiller had 13 points, six boards and six assists while Balanza was the other Letran player in double digits with 11 points.
"I'll give this one to my veterans. They never gave up so it was all about determination," said first-year Knights coach Bonnie Tan.
A Batiller lay-up gave Letran its first double-digit lead, 54-44, early in the second half.
But the Pirates immediately regrouped and regained the upper hand, 60-57, midway in the third before Batiller and Muyang conspired in the Knights' telling 15-2 run to erected an 84-72 advantage with 5:26 remaining.
The loss ended LPU's streak of back-to-back championship stints.
Despite losing CJ Perez to graduation, the Pirates fought hard to finish second behind the Lions in the elims only to fall short.
In the juniors division, John Barba had a career-high 36 points as LPU nipped San Sebastian, 78-76, to arrange a championship showdown with San Beda starting at 1 p.m. on Tuesday.
Letran (92) -- Yu 20, Muyang 19, Batiller 13, Balanza 11, Reyson 6, Mina 5, Sangalang 5, Balagasay 4, Ular 4, Caralipio 2, Javillonar 2, Ambohot 1, Olivario 0.
LPU (88) -- JC. Marcelino 26, Nzeusseu 19, David 11, Caduyac 5, JV. Marcelino 5, Navarro 5, Tansingco 4, Ibañez 4, Remulla 4, Santos 3, Guinto 2, Valdez 0.
Quarterscores: 20-26, 44-40, 67-66, 92-88